Summary: How does the baptism of Jesus relate to ours?
The Baptism of Jesus
The people had heard the apocalyptic message of John the Baptist. He had called the people to radical repentance, with baptism being a sign of that repentance. But more than an outward sign was needed. A sign is supposed to point to an inward reality. Repentance also demonstrated itself publicly in the observed change of behavior, another sign of an inward change. God wanted more than token repentance. He wanted a living repentance. When the people came to John, they left Israel, the covenantal land given to their forefathers. They had to go back to the time when the Children of Israel stood across the river in the wilderness awaiting the crossing of the Jordan. So by coming and repenting, they were admitting they were out of covenantal relationship. Even though the Israelite males had been circumcised in body, they were uncircumcised in their hearts and actions. Baptism serves as a Gilgal moment in which they renew their covenant with Yahweh.
Strangers to the covenant, such as soldiers and tax collectors also came. For them, baptism was the entering into the covenant of Yahweh. They too were called to radical repentance.
The ministry of John made people to ponder in their hearts whether John the Baptist was the promised Messiah. The Greek verb of being uses the optative text, which indicates that this was a deep longing and wish of the people. This is stronger than the English can render with “if” as though this was a mere speculation. There was the emotional aspect as well. The people were hoping that John was the Messiah, and that all the hopes the people had for him was about to be realized. This wondering was within the individual hearts and had not yet become a public dialogue.
John realized what was in their hearts. Either the Holy Spirit had revealed it to him, or he could see it on their faces. John needed to quickly correct their thinking. But he does it in a way that their hopes for the Messiah would not be dashed. He had to publicly confess that he was not the Messiah, something which is clearly stated in all four gospels. In fact, he was not worthy to be the slave who unbuckled his sandals. He was telegraphing that as great as things seems to be, and as great the ministry of John the Baptist was, there was even a greater One coming, and a day brighter than they could have imagined. John baptized in water, but the one who was coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. If the words of John the Baptist were severe, the words of the coming One would be even more so. He would separate the wheat and chaff. The wheat would be put into the barn, but the chaff would be burnt in unquenchable fire. The text then says that he said many other things to the people in the same train of thought.
Now there is a break in the text. Instead of going directly to the baptism of Jesus, Luke adds an editorial comment. He says that one of the other things John had done was to criticize Herod for marrying his brother’s divorced wife. It is also interesting to note that Herodias was either Herod’s half sister or his niece, but no mention of incest is mentioned. He was offended, but even worse, Herodias was even more offended, and this led to John the Baptist being imprisoned.
Now we have to deal with why the editorial comment breaks up the text. Luke is a very good writer, so it was not sloppy editing. This can only mean that it is placed there for emphasis. It is not to be put to the side like the lectionary does by cutting it out of the reading. What is in this text which illuminates this passage as a whole? We know John the Baptist was a faithful witness to Jesus. He knew his role in God’s plan and did not exceed it. The idea of witness to the person of Jesus is not only John the Baptist’s role, but ours as well. We are called to bold and truthful witness to Jesus. But witnessing truly of Jesus has its costs. The Christian is called to deny oneself and take up the cross daily. In other words, our witness might land us In jail or the executioner’s block. What happened to John has happened to many Christian martyrs over the centuries, and this may well include us as well. It is interesting that the Greek word “martyr” actually is translated “witness.” So many suffered martyrdom for their witness of Jesus that the word itself changed its meaning. The church is the Kingdom of God in suffering at the moment, but the Kingdom of God in glory is coming. What happened to Jesus will also happen to His disciples.